Sharlto Copley stars in the sci-fi thriller District 9. (© 2009 Sony Pictures)
Every couple years, a bracing, brash sci-fi movie comes along that feels fresher, ballsier, and more relevant than virtually any movie around. After such stone-cold classics as Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Gattaca, and Children of Men, District 9 veers away from the western metropolises and their future ills and plants itself straight in the third-world ghetto. And it’s a doozey.
The story in of itself is not groundbreaking. Aliens and their city-sized ship break down in mid-air above Johannesburg, South Africa. Soon after, the entire alien population is moved into a segregated sector called District 9. Twenty years pass and District 9 is now a filthy, exploitive slum from hell. A Halliburton-like corporation then takes the reins from the South African government and announces plans to move the aliens (dismissively referred to as prawns) to a “more human” District 10 (read: concentration camp). Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a klutzy desk-jockey who received his promotion through nepotism (his flinty father-in-law is the CEO of the company), is put in charge of moving the prawns into District 10. Wikus quickly finds himself in the midst of a nefarious and brutal conspiracy and begins to have a lot more in common with the prawns than he imagined.
Twenty-nine-year-old first-time director Neill Blomkamp said recently in an interview: “I tell everyone, if you want to see the future, go to Johannesburg. That’s the absolute truth. You said future dystopia, but that is Johannesburg. The only difference is that there’s a spaceship there, but if you throw the spaceship out, that’s Johannesburg. It’s gated communities and biometric thumb-readers if you want to get in. The rich live here and the masses of impoverished people live there. It is science fiction.”
This gets at the tough genius of District 9. Filming in his hometown and in real slums, Blomkamp vividly exposes the surreal barbarity and squalor of third-world poverty. Using aliens as an allegory for an oppressed people isn’t new, but the way Blomkamp, in the film’s visionary, docu-style first half, lays out the customs, black market, drug use, and exploiters of District 9 is clever, thrilling, and horrifying all at once. It’s trippy, smart, political filmmaking at breakneck pace.
What makes District 9 all the more amazing are its revelatory star and its shockingly modest budget. Sharlto Copley, a friend of Blomkamp’s and a fellow director, has basically never acted. He is, in the most generous terms, an amateur—until now. In nearly every scene of the film, Copley brings humor, empathy, and a distinctly realistic and human edge to a fantastical story. The fact that the film only cost $30 million is almost unbelievable. The effects are much, much better than the turgid G.I. Joe. Particularly remarkable are the prawns themselves. They are totally photorealistic and expressive, and the central prawn, Christopher, is as fully formed and sympathetic as Wikus.
District 9 reaffirms my belief that great science-fiction films can make for the most transcendent and powerful movie experiences. Coming at the tail end of particularly loathsome summer movie season, District 9 is the most original and intelligent film of the year. And it’s a hit. So look forward to a sequel—you’ll want one. A
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